Big budget licensing can be a difficult challenge for a studio trying to produce an “official game” tied to a highly anticipated movie. There are licensor considerations, audience expectations, immovable deadlines, and then actually making a fun game that fits within the storyline of the movie.
With The Martian: Bring Him Home, Little Labs has created a game that is not only meaningfully aligned with the world of The Martian, but also an immersive, authentic experience perfectly suited to the unique features of mobile gaming. As a warning, I have neither seen nor read The Martian, so I am not sure if any of the content I’m going to discuss is a spoiler or not. I’m assuming at least some of it is, so if you’re at all worried about that you should likely skip this review. However, as any good tie-in game should do, playing has only increased my interest in seeing the movie.
Fans of Lifeline, another text-based astronaut survival game, will recognize similarities in the game’s premise: Astronaut Mark Watney, who has contacted you through your mobile device, has been stranded on Mars and needs your assistance as a NASA ground control member to help him stay alive. You’ll help him do so by choosing between two predetermined options as the plot advances. On your device (including what appears to be a great Apple Watch experience) you receive communications from Mark, biorhythmic data on his physiological status, and emails from NASA team specialists with recommendations and requirements. Many of Mark’s requests for help are based on actual science and will result in a Google search or two if you haven’t recently taken high school chemistry.
While almost all of the choices on which you advise are life-and-death for Mark, the game does take some liberties checking in with you to make sure you really meant to advise Mark as you did; this made it all too clear when I had made the wrong choice and gave me a chance to fix it before putting Mark in serious danger. I had mixed feelings about this part of the experience as it did seem to lower the stakes, but it also allowed me to keep going.
Communications with Mark can be emotionally strained, which is understandable considering his situation, but they can also be a little too short or sporadic; I would have loved some longer sessions with him. Even so, the design of this game is perfect for the platform; short notifications, quick interactions, compelling and efficient storytelling that draws you in for a moment then lets you get back to the real world. And unlike other short-session games, this one holds a charged, tenuous thread as you go about your day, waiting (hoping?) for Mark’s next message.
There are a few small things that could be done to really make this game even more immersive. I’d like to be able to enter my name so that when Mark or other colleagues talk to me, I’m actually directly addressed; this is an effective tactic to elicit even more empathy from a player. The list of NASA team specialists is currently a static list and it could be improved by including actual biographical information on each of the members. When NASA emails me, I’d like to be able to email back, ask a question, or at least mark “read” or some other kind of receipt letting them know I acknowledge the interaction. Finally, some of the text responses were also a little buggy, but hey, they are coming from Mars so I can look past it.
I don’t really know where I am in the story or how much longer I’ll be helping Mark, but I’ve managed to keep him alive through some really intense stuff. And, each time a task is successful it seems as though something else goes wrong (thanks a lot, Mars).
Though I would love some longer interactions, the brevity of our communications actually ensures I’ll keep going back until we reach some kind of conclusion. As with all exciting experiences, these intense little sessions are worth the wait. So if you’re a fan of NASA, space adventures, gamebooks, or The Martian be sure to check out the official game. Mark is waiting for you to help bring him home.